tuftears: Lynx Wynx (SCIENCE!)
This has been irking me a bit lately, as I read various superhero 'fics' -- serials and the like. Whenever people write about most heroes, they have clear-cut powers. This is part of what makes Worm so interesting; not only do they have specific powers with known effects and ranges/strengths, they are often inadequate to the task, so they can only win the fight by outsmarting their enemies.

Then when it comes to inventors-- often referred to as 'tinkers', sometimes as 'contrivers' for those who exert magical power in technological guise-- all that goes out the window. Inventors can do anything, given some time in a lab and access to materials.

I've mused about this before but that was about why inventors don't seem to have more impact on the world. This time I want to talk about why inventors' abilities are so poorly defined.

When you look at stories like Legion of Nothing and Brennus in both cases, there's never a clear definition of what they can do. In fact, in Brennus, many people remark on the protagonist's unheard of ability to improvise deadly weapons from ordinary components in the heat of battle. In Worm, Taylor often remarks that tinkers are cheating, since they can quickly devise solutions that render her insects powerless. The only thing that restrains them is authorial intent: does the author want them to win or not?

This isn't true for superhero RPGs, of course. In Champions or Savage Worlds, you don't get to invent new powers on the fly; invention is just the 'special effect'. New inventions represent the character developing new technology. Points are how you balance the characters against each other.

But in fiction... How do you balance it? How do you make readers feel that the inventor superhero has limits on his or her power?

Sometimes you let it go; it's all about wish fulfillment. Tony Stark's "Iron Man" is liberal in the use of 'hey, look, new technology!' -- very often it turns out that Tony Stark had anticipated needing a certain technology, and is then able to summon it and put it into use quickly. On the one hand, it makes Tony Stark look smart. On the other, when it's not foreshadowed (as it so often isn't), it looks like "deus ex machina".

But if I were writing superhero fic... I'd want to hew toward power balance somehow. Maybe "story" inventing needs rules. Note that I'm specifically excluding 'contriving' here: this is specifically about inventors whose devices work by real (story universe) laws.

So what would those rules look like?

* Power. All inventions require power equivalent to the effect they cause. You can't just build a tank-cutting laser with a flashlight and two D-cells. You need a truck-sized power generator.
* Miniaturizing isn't free. Each order of magnitude you reduce a device increases the cost by about that much. For example, if you want powered armor with the speed and strength of a car, but you want its power pack to be backpack-sized, you'd better plan on the materials costing $100k.
* The farther in the future your technology is, the more expensive it becomes. We live in an age of internal combustion and fission nuclear reactors. Let's say you want to claim your power source uses antimatter. Total annihilation of matter should be fiendishly efficient, allowing you to make a really tiny power source, right? Well, first you have to build an antimatter-generating cyclotron; apply the miniaturizing rule as above if you want to use less than a football sized plant. Then apply the 'futuristic technology' multiplier. Hope you also made a money press!
* You can repurpose your inventions if you need to, as long as they share technologies. That tank-cutting laser? You can totally turn it into a wide-area flash to blind people or a battleship-sized welding torch. What you can't do is to turn it into a teleporter or a sonic stunner.
* Specialize. Inventors should have some easily defined focus-- maybe they like lasers, sound-based machines, or gravitics. Outside that focus, they'd be limited to 'state of the art' or worse. If they can do everything, the story becomes boring.
* Beg, borrow, steal, or buy. Inventors need materials. They can't just go to the city dump and get materials or spare parts. (this actually happens quite a few times in the superhero fics I've read) Real-world materials yield real-world results. Super results require super materials and devices. I picture inventors negotiating with other inventors, or forming a company and working together.

Which naturally leads toward the second half of things: what should the inventor-based superhero be doing?...

... honestly? Probably not 'going out there and fighting crime'. Sorry, Tony Stark, but that's a waste of valuable inventing time and an endangerment of a nationally critical resource, the inventor.

They can make inventions and go out using the inventions themselves, of course. But these inventions can be mass produced. Instead of having one man in an Iron Man suit, they could be equipping a team of responsible agents and sending them out. Going out alone is kind of a sign that one doesn't trust anyone else with such amazing powers.

That does go against the whole mystique of being an inventor. It seems like the real reason people want inventor superheroes is so they can have awesome powered armor suits.

Well. It's not like Sylia Stingray of the Knight Sabers didn't have her own 'hardsuit'...

Edit to add: I guess the upshot of this ruleset is, I don't think it's as interesting when inventors can bang together junk and make super-futuristic gadgets that do anything. Think of the inventor as MacGyver. The reader can have more fun trying to guess what the hero inventor is going to do with an old car engine, scuba tanks, spare parts and electronics, and her trustworthy sonic screwdriver if she knows the inventor isn't going to somehow improvise a spaceship.
tuftears: Thoughtful Lynx (Thoughtful)
I read a really impressive original-universe superheroes webfic series earlier this year, Worm. (warning, some triggery- stuff, very dark, epic in length) Wanting more, I eventually found a link from Harry Potter: Methods of Rationality to Cenotaph, a fanfic series that explores a large chunk of the series told by changing just one thing and extrapolating how that might have affected the story as it goes on. And then I noticed it was just one of a number of fanfics by various people all centered on this superheroes thing.

So, I read some more of them. Some I liked, some I didn't. In general, I really appreciate how Worm places so much emphasis on thinking, working out both new and better ways to use powers and when and where to use them for best effect. Worm also does a great job at capturing reader interest through a gradual but always intense escalation of power levels and conflicts. With that as a basis for comparison, cut for length! )


tuftears: Lynx Wynx (Default)
Conrad "Lynx" Wong

August 2017

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